Why on earth would someone change their behavior just because you said so? And what  can you do about it?

Week after week, a manager complains to her staff about missed project deadlines. Usually, only one or two completely finish the tasks they were assigned. The others make some progress toward their weekly goals or none at all. She lectures them about taking personal responsibility for the team’s success.

An instructor gently chides students in his class for not participating more in class. As he stands in front of the classroom, looking at the 20 students clustered in rows in front of his desk, he says, “This is such a small class. We could have excellent participation if only you would talk more about the readings. If you want to advance in your careers, you need to learn to take more individual responsibility.”

A parent yells at her kid for dumping his books, jackets, and lunch box on the floor right by the door when she comes home from school every day. “This is your home,” she explains with exasperation in her voice. “When are you going to learn to take responsibility for how it looks?”

The concept of “leading consciously” implies individual responsibility — people willingly assuming conscious awareness of thoughts, emotions, and actions. Yet, individual responsibility alone won’t get us where we want to go if situational factors work against us. And lecturing others about individual responsibility is equally doomed to failure if their environment is compelling them in another direction.

What influences our behavior?

In a previous post, I listed nine influencers on our behavior, based on the acronym MINDSPACE. These are as follows:

  • Messenger — we are heavily influenced by who communicates information
  • Incentives — our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses
  • Norms — we are strongly influenced by what others do
  • Defaults — we “go with the flow‟ of pre-set options
  • Salience — our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
  • Priming — our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues
  • Affect — our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
  • Commitments — we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
  • Ego — we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves

In thinking about situational factors, then, the question is, how might the manager, instructor, and parent in the examples above use the MINDSCAPE acronym to encourage others to change their behavior?

One way is by interrupting people’s default actions of continuing to do what they have always done by making the alternative action more salient, even fun. In Reframing Change, Chapter 7, we call this “changing situational factors, not just individuals” (p. 166).

How might this work?

Changing behavior by making it fun

A year or so ago, Volkswagen launched a contest to determine if it were possible to change people’s behavior by making the new behavior fun to do. The results were delightful.

In one experiment, people were encouraged to start climbing the stairs rather than taking the escalator by making the stairs fun to take. Sixty-six percent (66%) more people than normal chose the stairs. How did the experimenters get these results?

In another, people were encouraged to drive within the speed limit by rewarding the drivers who obeyed the speed limit law. The experiment was tried in Stockholm. By the end of it, speed was reduced by 22%:

For other winning entries, see this website.

What are the implications for those of us who want to improve our workplaces and our lives? If people (or you) aren’t doing things the way you want it to be done, one possibility is to figure out what situational factor needs to be changed so that the preferred behavior is easier — or more fun.

With this in mind, what might the manager, the teacher, or the parent do differently? What situational factors could they each change to make the desired new behavior more likely?

Any ideas? Either post them here in the comments or send them to me privately.

Filed under: achieving your goalsconscious use of selfinfluencing othersinitiating changemaking positive changes

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